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Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man / Edition 1

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Overview

Down and Out in the Great Depression is a moving, revealing collection of letters by the forgotten men, women, and children who suffered through one of the greatest periods of hardship in American history. Sifting through some 15,000 letters from government and private sources, Robert McElvaine has culled nearly 200 communications that best show the problems, thoughts, and emotions of ordinary people during this time.

Unlike views of Depression life "from the bottom up" that rely on recollections recorded several decades later, this book captures the daily anguish of people during the thirties. It puts the reader in direct contact with Depression victims, evoking a feeling of what it was like to live through this disaster.

Following Franklin D. Roosevelt's inauguration, both the number of letters received by the White House and the percentage of them coming from the poor were unprecedented. The average number of daily communications jumped to between 5,000 and 8,000, a trend that continued throughout the Rosevelt administration. The White House staff for answering such letters--most of which were directed to FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Harry Hopkins--quickly grew from one person to fifty.

Mainly because of his radio talks, many felt they knew the president personally and could confide in him. They viewed the Roosevelts as parent figures, offering solace, help, and protection. Roosevelt himself valued the letters, perceiving them as a way to gauge public sentiment. The writers came from a number of different groups--middle-class people, blacks, rural residents, the elderly, and children. Their letters display emotional reactions to the Depression--despair, cynicism, and anger--and attitudes toward relief.

In his extensive introduction, McElvaine sets the stage for the letters, discussing their significance and some of the themes that emerge from them. By preserving their original spelling, syntax, grammar, and capitalization, he conveys their full flavor.

The Depression was far more than an economic collapse. It was the major personal event in the lives of tens of millions of Americans. McElvaine shows that, contrary to popular belief, many sufferers were not passive victims of history. Rather, he says, they were "also actors and, to an extent, playwrights, producers, and directors as well," taking an active role in trying to deal with their plight and solve their problems.

For this twenty-fifth anniversary edition, McElvaine provides a new foreword recounting the history of the book, its impact on the historiography of the Depression, and its continued importance today.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A New York Times Book Review Books for Vacation Reading & Notable Book of the Year

There's nothing more deeply moving than reading the words and thus hearing the voices of the actual survivors of hard times. McElvaine has captured these voices as no one else ever has.
&#151Studs Terkel

The book is unique. Nowhere else can we read of despair as recorded by those who were feeling it hardest, unfiltered by memory.
—Southern Living

First-rate explanatory essays by the editor.
—The New Yorker

[This] book is easily the best thing of its sort ever done.
&#151David Shannon, Commonwealth Professor of History, University of Virginia

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807858912
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 2/25/2008
  • Edition description: Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 280
  • Sales rank: 585,975
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts and Letters and professor of history at Millsaps College.
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Table of Contents


Foreword to the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition     xi
Preface     xv
Acknowledgments     xix
Introduction     1
The Early Depression     33
Reactions to Hoover and Economic Breakdown     35
Conditions of Life in the Thirties     49
Proud But Frightened: Middle-Class Hardship     51
The Grass Roots: Rural Depression     67
A Worse Depression: Black Americans in the 1930s     79
To Be Old, Sick, and Poor     95
The Forgotten Children     113
Reactions to the Depression     121
Attitudes toward Relief     123
The Conservative     143
The Desperate     155
The Cynical     173
The Rebellious     183
The "Forgotten Man" Looks at Roosevelt     201
The Unconvinced     203
"Our Savior"     215
Notes     235
Sources of Letters     243
Index     247
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